DOG QUEST: Dog training and small dogs

We try to take Amos and Abby to training every week. The training mob we go to runs several classes a week, all in different locations, and the nearest one is on Saturday mornings. It’s about a 30-40 minute drive, depending on traffic, but finding good trainers can be difficult, and we’ve found these guys and are not letting them go.

A Saturday morning timeslot means that we miss the occasional session due to having adventures on Friday night, or prior social engagements, but, since we got Abby, I’d say we have a pretty good batting average.

There are a lot of myths about dog training.

One of the most pervasive myths is that dog training is just for “puppy school”. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s wonderful that we have a culture where people think it’s appropriate to take a new dog to training for a while so they can get a handle on one another. This is a great step forward. It used to be that people would just try to train their dogs themselves, and that can be a very bad idea.

But, in all honesty, training can be – should be – continuous. It’s not just about “sit”, “drop”, and “come”. Training is fun, for both you and your dog.

The disclaimer I want to provide there is that there have been times when training was not fun, when either Husband or myself were enormously stressed for other reasons, and Amos was in his adolescent MAD PUPPY phase, it was exhausting. The problem was us, of course, not Amos, and now I think that we are much better prepared to handle Abby’s MAD PUPPY phase (she’s a lot easier to handle for other reasons, though, mostly the fact that she is desperately food driven so it’s much easier to keep her engaged. I’ve mostly worked out the tricks to keeping Amos engaged, but it was challenging to get to this point). The worst period was when I was trying to rewrite and resubmit my thesis – I was miserable, stressed and exhausted all the time, and Amos picked up on this through my body language, and it made everything so much harder. None of that was his fault – it was mine, and my attitude – and we got through it together! Husband carried a lot of training responsibility at this time.

But with good trainers, and (most importantly) a good attitude, training is fun and uplifting – especially if you have a smart dog. Dogs love to learn new things, and there’s nothing quite like the connection you get when your dog cocks your head at you as you’re both learning something new. “What is it you’re after?” the dog is wondering. “Is it this?” You can see them thinking it through. Then the dog tries a few things, and eventually gets it right, and then there are treats and praise and playing. The feeling of being on the same page as your dog is difficult to describe. It’s just delightful.

Training sit, drop and recall is just the beginning. The skills you learn through continued dog training go much deeper. Engagement is key: teaching your dog to be focused on you, so that it’s easier to get their attention, and deliberately getting them riled up and giving them a command, to teach them that no matter how excited they are about something, they should still listen. Then there’s neutral socialisation – at our dog school, dogs are not allowed to interact. They learn that being around other dogs (when away from home at least) isn’t a reason to get super excited and start jumping or barking or growling or pulling on the lead (Abby is still working on this, but there is much improvement). Being around other dogs is just something that happens. For some dogs this takes a long time to learn, but as training progresses they can be taken closer and closer to other dogs without acting up.

Training is about mental stimulation for dogs. Incidentally, so is walking: when you take a dog for a walk, you’re not really taking them for exercise (unless your dog is small and has titchy little legs, or is really unfit). If you take a kelpie, say, out for a half an hour walk, you’ve barely scratched the surface of kelpie energy levels (those guys are half Energizer Bunny, I’m sure); they’re not going to get the endorphin rush that I get from a gym session. Walking is about stimulation – seeing things, sniffing things, hearing things, pissing on things (ah, boy dogs…), meeting people, meeting other dogs. It’s about going out, much in the same way that you don’t always want to be stuck at home all day.

Training is the same. I could walk Amos for an hour (and sometimes I do), and we have a good time, but afterwards, he is not particularly tired. He is content, but not tired.

When I take him to training, quite often he is done for the rest of the day. He flops down and is pretty much exhausted, because his brain was working very hard on concepts that are very complex for a dog.

Training is also wonderful for your bond with your dog. The more Amos and I have been working together at training, the closer we are and the better we get along and understand one another. Training is really practicing communication, and communication is at the heart of every relationship. When you get something right, you both get to be pleased with yourselves and with each other.

So, as a general rule, dogs that are going to regular training (presuming the dog school is run well, and ours is) are going to be happier than dogs that are not. It’s not so much about whether it’s necessary for good behaviour – it’s more a quality of life issue. Having said that, it’s easy to get complacent that your dog knows the basics, and get into bad habits, inconsistent signals, and all that sort of thing (we have been guilty of this). It’s never a bad idea to go in for a brush-up session if you don’t train regularly.

So why is this post titled the way it is?

It’s titled that way because our class is mostly composed of large dogs and working dogs and bull breed mixes (mentioned separately because they can often be quite small but are acknowledged to be both powerful and clever). Rottweilers, German Shepherds, various cattle dogs, border collies, labradors, the noble bitsas of larger size, Staffordshires of various mix and provenance, and so on.

Large dogs and working dogs come with strings attached; when you sign up for a dog that can drag a fully-grown man down the road, or work out how to open doors, or leap the majority of fences without effort, you have a dog that can get into serious trouble and do damage to property and people (should they take the notion into their fuzzy canine heads). So, unless you’re seriously irresponsible, you’ve also signed up to train that dog.

But training is not just about safety for people and dogs, although that is crucial – as we’ve seen, it’s about mental stimulation, happy dogs, and connection between dogs and people.

All those things apply to small dogs too.

We rarely see small dogs at training, but when we do, we are all delighted. It’s true that I myself would never have a small dog, but I love dogs in general, and if you leave me with a friendly, well-socialised Pomeranian for a day we will have a great time together. A dog is a dog is a dog.

(I should also mention that safety is important for small dogs. It’s harder for them to do damage, but yes, small dogs have killed infants. They should never be underestimated. Tiny and cute and fluffy they may be, but they are still dogs, with dog instincts and dog needs. There’s not a lot of broad psychological difference between Amos and your average Jack Russell)

While some small dogs feel a bit threatened at training (due to the presence of the aforementioned larger breeds), they do acclimatise to the environment, and then they are delighted. I’ve seen a three-month old pug doing a fantastic recall, tripping over her own feet (because, hey, still a puppy, and also pugs are not necessarily put together for grace on the ground), then get up and dash to her owner with her little curly tail wagging furiously. She was so happy. She and her owner had a marvellous time. Among the small dog breeds, I’ve seen Maltese, Pom-crosses, bat-eared Pekingese and especially the ubiquitous Jack Russell Terrier – and they all do really well at training (Jack Russells are particularly quick on the uptake. Very clever little fellows).

I have friends with smaller dogs, and they say things like, “Well, they finished puppy school… sometimes their behaviour is not great… but… you know…” and because they know I am such a proponent of dog training, there is some awkward floundering and I tend to say the following and rescue them:

“Honestly, if you don’t keep training [name of adorable little dog], it’s not a disaster. There’s not so much trouble they can get into [comparatively speaking]. It’s just not optional for us – Amos and Abby are big dogs.”

I always feel conflicted. I don’t want to make my friends feel bad – and all my friends who have dogs are responsible dog owners, regardless of dog size. Those dogs are loved, and cared for, and generally trained to at least the comfortable basics, and any problematic behaviour is taken into consideration. I feel so strongly about these things that I just want to give everybody gold stars for taking care of their dogs, because it’s not uncommon to see people with dogs that are serious trouble (regardless of size), and those people just laughing it off as “dogs will be dogs.” (yes, they will be. Well-spotted. This does not help solve the problem)

When it comes down to it, and it comes down to personal safety, continuing dog training for smaller dogs is optional – but for something that could so greatly improve their quality of life, I feel that “optional” is, for the most part, a technicality.

To be fair:

  • not everyone has the time. Taking into account the lesson time (one hour), the drive time (total one hour or more), prep time (getting two excited dogs into the car and harnessed, cutting training treats in sufficient quantities, swapping flat collars for training collars and, in Abby’s case, a halter – long story), it’s about two and a half to three hours on a Saturday morning for us. I can see how someone with small children, or a very demanding job, might simply not have those hours free – or, if they are free, might be absolutely desperate to keep those hours free. That’s a decision a person has to make for themselves. Having said that, if you’ve made time to walk your dog every day, it makes sense to swap out that walk for a training session once a week.
  • Not everyone has a decent trainer within reasonable driving distance. We train with the K9 Company , who service the northern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia (we live in the south-eastern suburbs, hence the drive). There’s a whole post on “what to look for in a dog trainer” (and if I were to provide tips I’d actually be consulting my trainers for confirmation), but as a basic start: make sure they are accredited. If an accreditation is available, they should have it. In Australia, that often means being accredited by the National Dog Training Federation (NDTF). Do not accept “Oh, I’ve always trained dogs” as a qualification. Dog training is a science. It is animal behaviour. We have experiments and long-term studies and evidence. We have data. Dog training and behavioural understanding evolves and improves – something that was an accepted method twenty years ago is probably considered inappropriate and potentially dangerous today (i.e., you might get results, but those results could be accompanied by worrying behaviour, or those results could be greatly improved if you alter your methods). Approach dog training as a science, and you will get much better results. If there is no-one accredited in your area, finding a good trainer is going to be that much more difficult.
  • I am not sure about the usual spread of training costs – for us, it’s $15 (AUD) per dog per class (update: it’s going up to $20 in September, but to be fair they’ve kept that at $15 for the last three years at least), and we pay when we turn up. There’s no subscription arrangement, which means that we don’t have to have a lump sum of cash every three months (or whenever it starts). This works a lot better for us, but not every training company is big enough to absorb the fluctuation in attendance rates on a pay-by-attendance schedule (I have noticed our winter classes are significantly smaller than the summer and autumn classes). Having $30 on hand is something we can manage, but for some people that’s a big deal. Having $200 on hand for a quarter’s worth of sessions can also be an issue. Of course, I strongly urge anyone who has a dog to make training a financial priority, but everyone has a different set of priorities and if your dog is safe and happy at the moment, it will go further down the list.

So I do understand that there are reasons a person might not train once the basics are understood, and I have to respect that choice – I mostly post this because I think that many dog owners are not actually aware of the benefits of long-term training, and maybe understanding those benefits will change the weighting of priorities.

And at my last training session, there was a very small poodle puppy, and he did a fantastic job and was a leaping little ball of black fluff having a marvellous time, and that’s the image I take with me when I think about small dogs and training.

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